People I Don't Talk to Anymore"I want to understand this little arm."
Do you think it’s wrong to cut off a finger if the guy really deserved it? I don’t know how I became friends with someone whose entire scalp was tattooed. He set his elbow on the bar, lifted his sweaty drink to his lips. I mean, he really deserved it. My other friends leaned against the red wall, waiting for my moral vote, and soon we had a unanimous decision: it is not wrong. You can live without a finger.
When the president of the eighth grade spent the night at my house, my mom was out of town and my dad grilled Bratwursts in the yard. Unsupervised, she told me her sister had a piece of plastic shaped like a penis. There it was in her drawer when the president of the eighth grade went to borrow some socks. We could not believe what a slut her sister was. We never would have guessed she was such a slut.
I said yes to the twelve-hour shift because I needed the cash. The show starts at four, ends at four, and if the cops come, hide the money and tell them it’s your birthday party. It was an abandoned building with one window that the train passed by every ten minutes. I carried twenty cases of beer upstairs, poured strong drinks, smiled when men said things in my ear. As the sun began to rise, he emptied my tip jar into his pocket.
My best friend and I got matching jobs at Beauty Express, a place where we got prizes for selling the shampoo derived from white truffles. Most of the time, I played loud music and put all the bottles in perfect rows—proof that we did something. When I got fired for showing up late, my best friend kept working there and complained every day about the new girl she had to work with. The series of complaints was so long and so specific that I considered it a kind of love.
He would have loved you. This grandfather never existed in the same moment that I existed, so I’ve never been able to love him. I’ve been told that he waited for everyone to leave the room before dying. My grandmother has a recording of him calling out square dance moves at some event. I’ve never heard it.
When my boss locked himself out of the copy shop, he shattered the back door’s window with a broom. The glass was still glittering when I came to work on Monday. I vacuumed and called a repairman who said I’m going to use my psychic powers to guess what you look like. You have blond, blond hair.
Her little sister liked basketball players. Black guys, she told me, and I saw her mother close her eyes.
I was sprawled on his carpet when he played me a record of a female folksinger and I said This is the best thing I’ve ever heard. Later I admitted I was seventeen and he walked me to my car.
This is where James Dean stood in that knife fight scene. I only learned this last week, but I said it to my date as if I was on set when it happened. We could see all of Los Angeles from there, but we still took the elevator to ascend one floor higher. In line for the telescope, he squeezed my arm in segments, up and down, until I asked him what he was doing and he said I want to understand this little arm.
I’d only known her a few hours before she told me a secret she’d never even told her mother. We’d spent the day buying clothes, calling boys, taking funny pictures, and waiting until the lights were off to actually talk. That stepfather? I pointed to the door.
I haven’t read that book, is it good? I asked the girl sitting next to me on the flight to Austin. She looked about twelve and had a window seat all by herself and I thought she might be lonely. Yeah, I’ve read it like five times, I love vampires. I asked what she liked about them. Ummmm, I like that they can’t tell anyone their secret and also they can save you from bad things.
The surgeon had an Indian accent that my father couldn’t understand, so my mother went to translate the accented English into unaccented English, and I thought That’s what love is—translating the same language together. For the next three years, the surgeon said many things about the lump in my father’s throat, all of them accented. But after the lump was removed and my father’s hair grew back thicker, the surgeon told him, I consider you cured, as if it were anything but luck.
The girl with the half-shaved head lived across from my dorm room, and we became friends after she borrowed my toothpaste at three in the morning. She said I thought I was the only one up and I said You’re not and we brushed our teeth. On Sundays we’d stay up all night so we wouldn’t sleep through our Monday morning class. We rode our bikes through the cold to the diner that served a big bowl of cereal for three bucks. We ate oversized spoonfuls and shot milky smiles at each other. One time we rode our bikes to a house party and as I locked mine to a gate, she rode straight into the living room, and everyone cheered like a sitcom.
He used to be the coach of the football team, and then he became our badminton coach. We never found out what spurred the transition, but anyone looking at that face could tell it wasn’t his choice. Most of us were only on the team because it was a form of waiting for softball season to start. When I asked for a drink of water, he repeated the request back to me as if I’d asked for something that could never be given. A drink? Of water? like I’d asked him to move an ocean. Whenever we won, he said That’s more like it.
I wanted to be her friend because I was in love with her boyfriend. I handed her a beer at a party and it worked! We ate pizza together and she said she’d never get pregnant because she made him pull out before they finished. When I saw her mattress on the floor I said So this is where the magic happens and I pulled the sheet over my eyes.
His mother was a trapeze artist and his father drove the truck. So you actually grew up in the circus? We worked the second shift at the copy store together. He chain smoked cigarettes in the alley and I stole about two hundred copies each night. I left the back door propped open as he smoked so I could ask him more questions about the Mexican circus, but all he told me was I’ve been so many places, man.
When I slid into home base, I slammed my mouth into the dirt and turned it red. I could hear the teacher’s pet say I’ll take her to the nurse! and then my best friend: No, I’ll take her! The teacher chose her pet to clutch my shoulders and guide me through the hallways. Are you in pain? she asked, emulating some adult she’d heard. I didn’t respond. If you’re in pain, just nod your head, she said. My lip was stuck to my braces and I was leaving a trail of blood behind us, but hell if I was going to give her a nod.
My friend’s mother was a judge with her own courtroom, so our girl scout troop went to see her in action. She used the gavel and we wanted to cheer, but we knew enough to stay quiet. Our troop leader took us back outside when we were done and said See? You can be anything you want to be. But we weren’t looking at her, we were watching the handcuffed men step off the bus, we were making eye contact. One of the men stuck his tongue out, aimed his crotch at us, and thrust against the morning air. Another called out Don’t end up like me, girls and in straight-faced unison: We won’t.